Trump Selects Rick Perry, a Critic of Federal Bureaucracy, for Energy Secretary

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Publication date: 
19 December 2016

President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his nominee for Secretary of Energy. Perry is a critic of the federal bureaucracy who has advocated for DOE’s elimination and derided climate science as systematically biased, but he is also an advocate for innovation in clean energy.


Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry

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Public domain, government source

Last Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump selected former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his nominee for Secretary of Energy. If confirmed by the Senate, Perry will have responsibility over a nearly $14.5 billion R&D portfolio, encompassing a wide array of intramural and extramural scientific research, as well as applied research, development, and demonstration programs in energy production, distribution, and efficiency. Notably, DOE’s Office of Science is the largest sponsor of research in the physical sciences in the U.S. As secretary, Perry will also have administrative authority over DOE’s network of 17 national laboratories as well as over maintenance of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

Perry’s selection draws mix of reactions

Perry’s commitment to the stewardship of DOE is certain to arise during his confirmation hearings. In 2011, while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Perry pledged that he would abolish the department alongside the Departments of Education and Commerce to reduce the size of the federal government. Then, during a Republican debate, Perry could not recall DOE while listing off these departments and bowed out of the race soon thereafter.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which will handle Perry’s nomination, welcomed the selection, remarking in a statement, “I look forward to meeting with Gov. Perry to discuss a wide range of important issues, including the high cost of energy in Alaska, the United States’ innovation excellence, the future of nuclear energy, LNG exports, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and represents the home state of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, found the selection unacceptable. He released a statement saying:

President-elect Trump has signaled his blatant hostility to the Department and the workforce at our National Labs by nominating someone who has proposed eliminating this entire agency. I’m not confident that Rick Perry is fully cognizant of the role that DOE plays in keeping our nuclear deterrent safe, secure, and reliable. He is utterly unqualified to lead this critical agency.

In a tweet, Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a physicist, and a former Democratic congressman, noted that the Energy Secretary “should have some expertise” in the department’s “highly technical areas,” and observed that Perry does not and therefore “should surround himself with those who do.”

Perry a critic of federal bureaucracy, proponent of state action

Perry’s proposal to eliminate DOE stemmed primarily from his general dissatisfaction with the scale and regulatory power of the federal bureaucracy. Perry’s 2010 book “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington” detailed his views on the federal government at length. In it he argued,

The federal administrative state has become so far-reaching—having departments or agencies focused on energy, environment, health care, food, drugs, guns, labor, education, and more—that it is almost impossible to know where it ends. It gets its initial empowerment from Congress, which passes broadly worded statutes, but the unelected employees of these executive agencies are left with the real rule-making authority. These are the ‘experts’ who will decide precisely how your life is affected by federal laws.

However, he is more amenable to action by state governments, pointing with approval, for instance, to Texas’ record of environmental regulation predating federal environmental legislation. In his view, though, Texas’ more recent record of deregulation in the energy sector has helped the industry, including the renewable energy sector, thrive in the state. Notably, during Perry’s term as Texas governor, he supported initiatives, such as the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, that aided the rapid expansion of wind energy and helped it attain cost-competitiveness there.

Implications of Perry pick for DOE science unclear

Between Perry’s amenability to new energy source development and his long campaign against federal bureaucracy, it is difficult to foretell precisely how he will regard DOE’s work once he is in charge of it. This is doubly true since he is not yet on record concerning large portions of the department’s mission, including its sprawling scientific research portfolio. Some clues, though, might be gleaned from his stewardship of Texas’s public universities during his time as governor.

Interviewed by ScienceInsider, Larry Faulkner, who was president of the University of Texas at Austin from 1998 to 2006, reports that Perry was “interested in scientific research and technical innovation” and was “willing to support investment in them,” adding, “His interest was usually driven by the possibilities for economic opportunity for the state, which is not surprising for a governor.”

However, Faulkner’s successor as university president, William Powers, Jr., clashed with Perry over controversial tuition and management reforms advocated by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an organization that Perry deeply admires. Powers and others regarded the reforms as detrimental to the university’s research mission. While Perry defended his commitment to research during the affair, his successor as governor, Greg Abbott, has worked to distance himself from Perry on this subject by showing a stronger commitment to university-based research.

What Perry’s history in Texas augurs for his agenda at DOE is unclear, but, in any event, Congress will certainly continue to play a major role in setting DOE policy. This year, Congress seriously considered but failed to pass new authorizing legislation for the department. It will also ultimately decide what funding levels DOE and its various agencies and programs will receive.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who currently chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for DOE’s budget, welcomed Perry’s selection, saying in a statement:

I have known and worked with him for years. I look forward to learning more about his plans for supporting energy research, strong national laboratories and supercomputing that help give America its competitive edge in creating jobs.

If Alexander retains his subcommittee chairmanship, his longstanding support for DOE R&D could do much to protect or even enhance DOE’s portfolio. As reported in FYI #94, earlier this year, Alexander introduced legislation that would eliminate the federal wind production tax credit in order to increase the DOE Office of Science budget by billions of dollars. While there is no way to say whether Alexander’s proposal will advance in the new Congress, it is worth noting that Perry likewise opposes the federal wind tax credit, preferring state-specific inducements.

Perry views climate science as politically biased

Perry’s selection has done little to quell worries about climate research at DOE, which is conducted through its Biological and Environmental Research program under the Office of Science. These worries were stoked last week after Trump’s landing team at the department submitted queries, now retracted, asking for the names of researchers who had attended certain meetings and conferences on climate science and policy.

In “Fed Up!” Perry derided the scientific consensus on climate change as the product of systematic political bias, claiming that some scientists had “doctored” their data and that the Earth was actually experiencing a “cooling trend.” He further asserted that “the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists, and that draconian policies with dire economic effects based on so-called science may not stand the test of time. Quite frankly, when science gets hijacked by the political Left, we should all be concerned.” Perry made similar remarks during his 2011 run for the presidency.

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